A friend wrote me an email in Hebrew with a technical question about Google Box.
Google Box? That’s a Google service that i haven’t heard about. I heard about I’m feeling lucky, Site search, GMail, Maps, Product Search, Scholar, Buzz, Books…
Oh, Books. (If you’re into general linguistics, you may call it “scanning the paradigmatic axis in slow motion”.)
Hebrew has several spelling standards. None of which is actually used consistently by the general public. The root cause of the confusion is that the Hebrew alphabet only has consonant letters and the vowels are marked by a set of separate signs called “vowel points” or “niqqud” (also spelled nikud etc.; transliteration of Hebrew is also very inconsistent in actual practice). The vowel points are rarely written at all. It doesn’t mean, however, that the vowels aren’t written at all. Some consonant letters are used as vowels, albeit in a rather peculiar way.
For the sake of simplicity i’ll just say that in the most common type of spelling the vowels /u/ and /o/ are both spelled with the letter vav (also called waw). The same letter also marks the consonant /v/, but more often it is a vowel. With the help of rather wondrous intuition most Israelis, when reading, understand whether it is /u/, /o/ or /v/ according to the word, without giving it much thought. It becomes problematic when foreign words need to be transliterated into Hebrew: The English words “box” and “books” are transliterated as, more or less, “bwqs”.
It is possible to discriminate between the two, by using a point from the niqqud system: A point inside the letter vav means that it is to be read as /u/, and a point above it means that it is to be read as /o/. There is no way to type it on the common Hebrew keyboard, however. Or, more precisely, there is a way, but the key combination is very tricky and there’s no drawing on the keyboard that hints at it, so most Israelis don’t know that it is possible. And when you don’t know that it’s possible, it’s as good as impossible.
I’d like to change that. I’d like to make the vowel points available to the general public using computers. So that not only professional book editors will be able to use them, but everyone. So i’m working with the Israeli Institute of Standards to revise the standard keyboard.